Obama folds on TSA nominee as Southers pulls out

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 20, 2010 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration abruptly withdrew his name Wednesday as Democratic and Republican senators exchanged charges of politicizing the key security post.

The dispute over Erroll Southers, a senior Los Angeles Police Department official, had intensified since a Nigerian man allegedly tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane bound for Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day.

Southers, a former FBI agent, issued an unusually bitter public statement about the months-long hold on his nomination by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and other Republican senators who are opposed to collective bargaining at the TSA.

"It is apparent that this path has been obstructed by political ideology," Southers said in a statement released by the White House.

"It is clear that my nomination has become a lightning rod for those who have chosen to push a political agenda at the risk of the safety and security of the American people," he said.

DeMint, who'd blocked Southers' nomination since October, fired back.

"Mr. Southers was never forthcoming about his intentions to give union bosses veto power over security decisions at our airports," DeMint said.

The sparks flew even as White House aides and congressional Democrats signaled a new willingness to cooperate with Republicans in the wake of Republican Massachusetts state Sen. Scott Brown's stunning special election Tuesday to replace the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, who was a Democrat.

DeMint aides said that as recently as Monday, White House officials had promised to elaborate on Southers' stance on collective bargaining among 45,000 TSA employees.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, blamed DeMint and other Republicans for Southers' withdrawal.

"Today our national security system lost a skilled law-enforcement officer with needed expertise and leadership qualities because of political games," Rockefeller said. "That is a real shame. I urge my colleagues to more carefully focus on America's security, not partisanship."

Southers told DeMint in a recent letter that he hadn't formed a final decision on TSA collective bargaining, but during Obama's 2008 presidential campaign the presidential candidate had assured union heads that he supported it.

DeMint, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and other Republicans had pressed for details about the Obama administration's vetting of Southers after Southers acknowledged having misrepresented his role in a decades-old mini-scandal involving his former wife.

When Southers was with the FBI, the agency censured him for having used a law-enforcement database to access the records of his ex-wife's boyfriend.

After Obama nominated him to lead the TSA, Southers gave one account of the incident in a sworn congressional affidavit on Oct. 22, but four weeks later he apologized for what he described as inadvertent inconsistencies in his recollection.

"During a period of great personal turmoil, I made a serious error in judgment by using my official position with the FBI to resolve a personal problem," Southers wrote in a letter Nov. 22 to Sens. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, and Susan Collins of Maine, the chairman and senior Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

Southers, who said he'd been concerned for his son's safety, at first said he'd asked a colleague to access the boyfriend's records in 1986 and 1987, but he later said that he'd accessed them himself.

Nick Shapiro, a White House spokesman, said Wednesday that Obama had accepted Southers' decision "with great sadness."

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